The authorities should stop equating a rational parenting decision—letting your kids wait in the car a few minutes—with criminal wrongdoing. A great piece in The Appeal by Joshua Vaughn calls this practice a "new moral panic that targets moms." He opens with the shocking story of Ashley,* a Pennsylvania mom who let her three kids—ages 2, 5, and 7—wait in the car for 10 minutes while she ran an errand inside a store:
While Ashley was in the store, a passerby saw the children in the van and called county authorities. Cumberland County 911 dispatched [Sgt. Keith] Stambaugh, and Kohl's alerted shoppers about the children over the public address system. Ashley ran out of the store and drove off because she feared that the police would take her children away, she later told Stambaugh. She returned to the store minutes after leaving and waited for the police to arrive.
When he arrived on the scene, Stambaugh arrested and charged Ashley with three counts of reckless endangerment, three counts of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle and a count of careless driving. Ashley's 10-minute errand now meant she was facing up to two years in jail.
Consider the state's logic: For the crime of separating from her kids for 10 minutes—which the authorities view as criminally dangerous—Mom could be forced to separate from her kids for two full years.
Vaughn goes on to trace the origin of our car-wait panic, which he believes began in the 1980s when "stranger danger" was first sweeping the country. Missing kids' pictures were put on milk cartons without anyone bothering to explain that the vast majority were runaways or taken by parents in contentious custody cases.
After that, the concern about hot cars started to grow. Hot cars are indeed a threat to child safety when the child is forgotten for a very long time. But the public has come to believe that any instance of a kid waiting in a car, however briefly, represents mortal danger. A brief wait is not only safe—it is safer than being taken out and crossing the parking lot. As truly gut-wrenching as cases of hyperthermia are, arresting moms who let their kids wait in the car for five minutes will not bring back the children forgotten there for five hours.
And yet, Vaughn writes:
Though the incident outside the Kohl's occurred nearly one year ago, Ashley's* case is still unresolved. In the meantime, she has incurred—and paid—hundreds of dollars in fines and fees, including nearly $200 for the county's plea fee, $50 for the cost of prosecution, $100 for the disposition program and $23 for an expungement fee.
In August, Ashley is expected to enter an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, in which she will spend the next six months to two years under probation-like supervision and perform community service with the expectation that the charges will be dismissed after successful completion. If Ashley does not finish the program, Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert could prosecute her.
It's time for this to stop. We can help turn the tide by demanding that parents not be arrested unless they show blatant disregard for their children's safety and put them in real danger.
*UPDATE: Reason has changed Ashley's name to a pseudonym (as has The Appeal) because her record has been expunged.